Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Women Workers in Egypt: Hidden Key to the
By Megan Cornish
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, April 11, 2011
Russian Revolution leader V.I. Lenin minced no words on the importance
of rebel women: “The experience of all liberation movements has shown that
the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in
During the 18-day uprising that drove Egyptian President
Mubarak from power, the extraordinary role of the women gradually came to
light. Independent media showed hundreds of thousands in the
demonstrations, especially up front, facing phalanxes of police or
soldiers. A famous YouTube video of Asmaa Mahfouz, the fierce young woman
who exhorted everyone to descend on Tahrir Square for the first mass
demonstration in Cairo, rocked Egypt — then the world. Throughout, females
were medics, neighborhood defense patrollers, rally leaders.
the years leading up to the January explosion, women workers were critical
in transforming Egypt’s labor movement into an unstoppable force. They
will be just as pivotal in the hard work of keeping the revolution on
Poverty and repression set the stage.
business media monotonously stressed that the uprising crossed class
lines. But only the alternative press pointed out that conditions for the
country’s working and poor were the driving force. And that it was
striking workers across the country who finally forced Mubarak out.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country, with the most diversified
economy and largest working class. Youth under 25 make up over half the
population. Unemployment is the highest for women, the young, the educated
and rural dwellers. Forty percent of people live in extreme poverty,
surviving on two dollars a day or less. The huge informal economy has many
women and youth, who are especially victimized by corrupt police-state
During Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the once large
nationalized sector shrank steadily. In the ‘90s, social services were
severely cut back. The process of capitalist globalization, marked by
privatization, deregulation, and creation of low-wage free trade zones,
expanded vastly from 2004 on. While wages sank, prices rose steeply. The
stage was set for labor — and women, who are always hardest hit — to
Making Tahrir Square possible.
militancy of labor in recent years showed the people their power. Egyptian
workers have mounted an astounding 3,000 strikes and other forms of
protest since 2004.
Although women are under a quarter of the
workforce, many labor in free trade zones, in textile and other public
industries and in small sweatshops. They have sparked a number of the most
important labor struggles.
A crucial one was the strike of over
20,000 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the city of Mahalla,
December 2006. The women walked out first, challenging the men to follow,
shouting, “Here are the women! Where are the men?” The strikers appealed
to the community and other plants for solidarity, a hallmark organizing
tactic when women workers are involved. Their fight led to further work
stoppages at the company and swept through the huge government-run textile
These public workers led the way in connecting the
struggle against economic deprivation to opposing the government that is
responsible. Some strike slogans were: “We will not be ruled by the World
Bank!” “We will not be ruled by colonialism!”
Besides the Misr
company, women have been strike leaders in the tax collectors’ movement
that built the first independent union and the Hinawi Tobacco Company in
Damanhour, among others.
Mahalla female and male leaders
strategized a call for general strike on April 6, 2008. The government’s
vicious suppression of this national strike inspired the April 6 Youth
Movement, a group of young workers of both sexes — unique in Egypt — built
around the collaboration of laborers in large factories and small
The Mahalla workers also initiated meetings with other
public workers, as well as private companies, to establish an independent
trade union federation. They achieved their goal during the
January-February upsurge. This organizing was pivotal in building the
strike wave across Egypt that finally drove out Mubarak, his hastily
appointed vice president, and the prime minister who replaced them.
Defense of women vital.
The gains won so far still need to be
consolidated. The army has not ended the state of emergency, and is making
new political arrests and prosecuting defendants in military tribunals.
Regime thugs are wreaking havoc with brutal attacks on Coptic Christians,
and on a rally of women on International Women’s Day, despite the attempt
of male supporters to defend them.
As Andrea Bauer says in the
political resolution adopted at the FSP’s 2010 convention, Socialist
Feminism and the Revolutionary Party: a radiant program for new
generations, “Just as women’s inequality was a necessary precondition for
capitalism’s rise, it remains a condition of capitalism’s survival.
Women’s basic democratic rights, like the rights of people of color in the
U.S., cannot be won short of the destruction of capitalism…. And it is the
reason why women are the target of every series of cutbacks by the
employers, every reactionary crusade by the right wing, and every assault
on rights by the state.”
Whether the mighty Egyptian revolution
will win this time, or fall back to capitalist counterrevolution, depends
on whether Egyptian socialists seriously organize for workers’ control and
vigorously defend women and the rest of those on the bottom of society. It
also depends on U.S. and international radicals, feminists and working
people standing up for their sisters and brothers on the front lines in
This article was also published by the Freedom Socialist newspaper,
Vol. 32, No. 2, April-May 2011
Contact the author at